Tuesday, October 11, 2016

A Tale of Two Villages

On a recent stay in England I had the opportunity to visit the “ghost village” of Tyneham, a village that was “de-populated” during World War II – and the comparisons to the Palestinian villages that were “de-populated” during the Nakba were so strong that I was compelled to share them.

The shell of a home in Tyneham

Before the War, Tyneham was a small farming village of about 225 people, living in 102 homes – mostly tiny stone cottages – and working on the surrounding farmland.  It was in the heart of Dorset, on the southern coast of England, what the British call “Thomas Hardy country.”  But, as the Nakba changed things for the Palestinian people in 1948, World War II changed things for the residents of Tyneham in 1943.

In November of that year, the villagers were sent letters from the War Cabinet telling them that they had to leave their homes by December 19 in order to give troops the space they needed for training.  Of course, the patriotic villagers complied without complaint – England was a very patriotic place in the 1940s! – and left with the understanding that they would be allowed to return when the Army no longer needed their village.

and the shells of homes in Bir'im

If this story is starting to sound familiar, then maybe you’ve visited Bir’im, the Palestinian village in the northern Galilee that was the home of Archbishop Elias Chacour prior to 1948 – or one of the other hundreds of villages that were similarly destroyed during the Nakba?  The main difference is that the residents of Tyneham at least were given a few weeks’ notice to vacate their homes – the 542 residents of Bir’im had to flee with the clothes on their backs and whatever household goods they could hastily grab.

But residents of both villages were told they could come back – to Bir’im in a few weeks, to Tyneham after the war had ended.  Today – 70 years later – both villages are shells with crumbling stone walls, both have been turned into “parks” (of a sort!) and both have standing churches with cemeteries that are used to this day.  For, while the living cannot return to their homes, the dead may return for burial in both Bir’im and Tyneham.

Bir'im church

Tyneham church
Of course, the intervening years have treated these two villages very differently.  The buildings in Bir’im were still standing in 1951 when the residents petitioned the courts to return to their land.  When the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that they could return, the Army went in and blew up the houses, leaving only the rubble that is visible today.  Further, the Israeli government subsequently discovered that the village housed the remains of a 7th century synagogue, and thus turned the area into a national park, eradicating signs that a vibrant community of Christians and Muslims once lived, loved, worked, played and prayed there.

The dead return to Tyneham
Tyneham suffered a slightly different fate.  When its residents asked to return, in 1947, they were told that the Ministry of Defense was claiming permanent occupancy to facilitate the operation of a large military base, Lulworth.   The residents were given some compensation, and the village was turned into a shooting range, even as residents and sympathetic helpers attempted to re-gain access.  Finally, after continued discussions, in the mid-1970s the Army agreed to shore up the derelict buildings and to allow public access on weekends when the gunnery school was closed.  Today, one can visit the shells of the buildings and learn about the life of the village from the plaques on the walls, or visit the cemetery and church which, while decommissioned, is intact. 

and the dead return to Bir'im

Two villages – two people.  Separated by a continent, language and customs, yet bound together by war and its aftermath.  While in England, I noticed that many of the towns have signs, “Twinned with ____________,” referring to their “sister city” in another country.  Perhaps Tyneham and Bir’im should be “twinned”?

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Of Demolished Schools - and Hasbara

An "intentional" demolition - Portland, Oregon, USA

A few days ago I walked across the campus of Portland State University, where bulldozers were tearing down an athletic building as part of a re-model project. Juxtaposed against this, when I got home, I opened my computer browser and read a story about the Bedouin "tire school" that was (again?  still?) under a demolition order (https://www.rt.com/news/356363-palestine-school-demolish-israel/).  

 And then I learned that, while still reeling from the recent demolitions in Sabastiya (see this blog, “Yet Another Sad Day in Sabastiya,” August 9, 2016), the farmers there are now dealing with a fire that destroyed more than 60,000 square meters planted in olive trees and other crops. 
Fire in Sebastiya (photo by Ahmad Kayed)
Destroying a school building to erect a newer one (as is happening here in Portland) is one thing – but wanton destruction of buildings or crops "just because" one can is another entirely!

In 2013, as part of my EAPPI orientation, we visited the “tire school,” located a short distance from Jerusalem.  It is so called because it was constructed of mud and tires, with materials and labor donated by the Italian government.   

Bedouin children, Khan al-Ahmar
The school, we were told, was built for the Bedouin community of Khan al-Ahmar because it had become too dangerous for the children of the village to walk to the nearest Palestinian school.  I remember the pride with which the community showed us their school – and the happy faces of the children! 

The school, we were told then, has been under demolition orders almost since its inception – the “reason” probably that it was built without a permit, which is the usual “reason” given for demolitions of home, schools and businesses.  Of course, permits are almost never given for any sort of Palestinian construction, and demolitions are becoming increasingly common.  And, while most buildings are demolished because of the lack of a permit, an increasing number are being demolished as “corporate punishment,” to the families of suspected “terrorists.”
Tire School under demolition order

Remember, in Israel, one can be labelled a “terrorist” for throwing stones – or, as of the last few weeks when the most recent draconian legislation was passed by the Knesset (Israeli Parliament), for simply speaking out against the Israeli government.  Now, in Israel, those involved in the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a historically respected form of peaceful protest, can be punished – even jailed.   

Foreign aid organizations are suspect as are Israeli “peace activists,” and, with the encouragement of the so-called “Israel Lobby” in the US (and elsewhere!), BDS has become a target for those who would strip us of freedom of speech and expression. 

There is, I am told, a Hebrew word that describes what is happening here – hasbara, defined as “a form of propaganda aimed at an international audience.”  Hasbara is one of the major weapons in Israel’s “war” against BDS – and against those of us who would educate others about the ills of the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestine.  Columnist James Wall describes this far better than I ever could (https://wallwritings.me/2016/08/23/israel-defends-its-false-narrative-against-bds/) and I recommend his writings for a thorough explanation of this issue.

Those of us who can do something about all of this are required by our sense of humanity and justice to do so.  That “something” can be as small as writing a letter – or saying a prayer.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Yet Another Sad Day in Sabastiya!

Sabastiya - "Before..."

Regular readers of this blog already know I have a soft spot for Sabastiya – a beautiful little town in the northern West Bank near which is sited a once world-famous (now sadly overlooked due to the Occupation) archeological site dating back to Roman times.  In previous postings, I’ve shared stories ranging from settlers dumping raw sewage on agricultural land to the deliberate burning of crops and olive trees, and lauded the courage and endurance of the townspeople. (See “Sabastiya, settlers and sewage,” March 26, 2013; “Sabastiya: A Happy Ending,” April 7, 2013; and “A(nother) Sad Story from Sabastiya,” June 30, 2013).

and "...After" (photo by Ahmad Kayed)
Today comes news of yet another attack on this special place - the IDF’s demolition of two structures located adjacent to the parking lot for the archeological site.  This first came to my attention in a Facebook post from Ahmad Kayed, a Palestinian friend who I first met when my EA team visited Sabastiya at the time of the sewage dumping.  Later, a news story gave me more details (https://www.facebook.com/imemcnews/?fref=nf&pnref=story&hc_location=ufi) 

A first-century church in the archeological site
Since my first visit to Sabastiya in 2013, I have returned there every time I visited Palestine.  I have brought other people there; have eaten in the now-destroyed restaurant and made purchases in the demolished shop.  I have also walked among the ruins and enjoyed the tranquility of this beautiful site.  So the news of these demolitions has brought the Occupation home in a personal, visceral way!  First I cried then I got angry!

Sabastiya should be recognized as the international treasure that it is.  It should be given World Heritage Site status, preserved and protected.  Instead, the Israeli government won’t even let the locals clean up trash that accumulates on the site from the few visitors it gets these days (As one can imagine, visits are down considerably from Sabastiya's peak as the Middle East’s most visited tourist destination in the early 60s!).  The IDF has encroached on the archeological site, destroying artifacts in a way that would bring jail time to anyone who did the same thing in Israel proper.  They will not allow international archeologists onto the site, either to preserve it or to establish it as a World Heritage site. 

An EA talks to a villager (photo by Ahmad Kayed)
And now this – deliberately destroying buildings and causing harm.  And for what?  Because they can!  Because this is Area C – in the full control of the Israeli military (as is well over half of Palestine!) – and destroying Palestinian property is the first step in “colonizing” the land – as they have already done in so many places and continue to do because nobody will stop them!

So I’m sad, and I’m angry, and I don’t know what else to do but to tell as many people about this as I can – and to hope someone is listening!!